Writing the Statement of Purpose: General Advice

Excerpts from an article on statement of purpose writing by Dr. Steven Olswang, University of Washington Provost, written for the Fulbright Commission:

Applying to Graduate Schools in the US: The Statement of Purpose

Copyright © The US-UK Fulbright Commission, used by permission of the author:

Steven G Olswang, JD, PhD
Vice Provost and Professor, University of Washington;
Fulbright Academic Administrative Fellow


"Perhaps the most difficult part of the application process for admission to graduate school...is the composition of a Statement of Purpose. It may be helpful first to understand a little about graduate education...before undertaking to write this Statement.

Graduate Education Overview
" ...Faculty at institutions of higher education in the United States take their work with graduate students very seriously. Faculty take strong personal interest in their graduate students (after all, they will work with those students for many years), and expect their students to complete their programs once admitted. Faculty expect their students to go on after graduation to important positions in academia, industry, or government. Therefore, the work of graduate students affects the reputation of the Faculty. As a result, the selection of the right graduate students is very important to both the faculty and the long term reputation of the department and university.

Why the Statement of Purpose?
" Faculty want to know as much as they possibly can about all applicants. This is especially true today because most graduate programs have only a limited number of admission slots available. Test scores, grades and degrees, institutions of previous study and personal recommendations are all important indicators of an applicant's future success. However, these data do not reveal much about the individual, his/her motivation, why the applicant is interested in that particular program, or whether the applicant is the kind of student the Faculty want around the department. The Statement of Purpose exists to allow applicants to convey something personal about themselves and to convince the Faculty making the admissions selection that the applicant is an especially attractive candidate.

" The Statement of Purpose should not relate a life story or flatter either the applicant or intended readers. It provides applicants the opportunity to present information that is not conveyed through objective data, in a clear, direct, and concise way, to explain their interests, motivations, goals and special talents. It must be honest.

Writing the Statement of Purpose
" So with this broad understanding of the Statement of Purpose and its function, how should it be written?

" The first thing to remember is that each application process for each university is different. That means that the questions asked in the application MUST be the questions answered, and answered directly. An effusive, evasive, or non-responsive answer will inevitably result in rejection. Be absolutely clear what the application instructions ask of you and tailor your statement accordingly. That may mean that each application requires that you write a somewhat, if not entirely, different Statement of Purpose, since each Statement must answer a particular question.

"As a general rule, the two generic questions that need answering, at least inferentially, in most Statements of Purpose are: "Why are you interested in this program?", and "What makes you special?". This allows applicants the opportunity to provide Faculty substantive information about themselves. This is where applicants can demonstrate that they did their homework about the program and that they thought seriously about the strengths and weaknesses they bring to graduate study.

Answer the Question!
" The following are some questions that Faculty ask themselves when they read a Statement of Purpose:

Why are you interested in graduate study?
" There is some personal reason that made you decide to continue your education beyond the bachelor's degree. Tell them directly why. This may be something that you have always wanted to do, or for which your parents or others were role models, or perhaps you have recently been excited by new possibilities of learning. All the Faculty had their own reasons for going on to get their graduate degrees and they will want to know that you are truly interested for a legitimate reason. Do not try to write what you think Faculty want to hear ("to advance the field"); they have heard it all already.

Why are you applying to this particular graduate program?
" Is the program noted for a particular emphasis, speciality, or orientation? Is it in the same city where your sister lives, and you could get free housing that would allow you to go to graduate school? Are there particular professors with whom you want to study because of their area of expertise? Whatever the reason, explain it. This is where the Faculty evaluating your application will be able to tell if you have thought seriously about their particular program. It will indicate your interest in them and show that you did your homework, a good early sign of a serious student.

What is it about you that is special?
" It is important that you explain your motivations and your goals This is what will distinguish you from all other applicants and make you memorable to the Faculty...Explain your academic background and your performance in the bachelor's degree program. If you wrote a bachelor's thesis, briefly explain its importance and what you learned from writing it. Be sure to mention any prizes you may have won. If you worked while in school, tell why, especially if it was for a Faculty member. If you had any special experiences outside the formal learning environment that directly relate to the field of study you are interested in pursuing (e.g. travel or study abroad; employment in the field) tell about those. Describe any experience that demonstrates your creativity, dependability, and independence - these are important personal characteristics that Faculty desire in their students.

Are there items that need special explanation?
" Faculty will first look at the empirical data in your application: your grades, transcripts, test scores, even the recommendations, before reading the Statement of Purpose. They will spot peculiarities they want explained. Is there a gap in your years of study; did it take you more than the traditional time to finish your degree; did you leave to work to support your family, or to care for an ill family member; did you change fields; do you have related work experience? All these are questions that need to be answered. Unexplained voids in your record make you a less attractive candidate. On the other hand, honest explanations make you human and the kind of person with whom others will want to work.

Do you add diversity to the program?
" American institutions of higher education are very interested in diversifying their student body, particularly at the graduate level. If you are a woman, a member of a minority group, disabled, or have another distinguishing characteristic that may be relevant, let the Faculty know in your Statement in an appropriate way. It may relate to your motivation to pursue a graduate degree. Understand that under American law, Faculty cannot ask questions about many personal topics. Since it is unlikely that many international students will interview in person at all the graduate schools where they submit applications, the Faculty will know you only by what you write in your Statement.

What to Avoid
" While there are some things that a Statement of Purpose must address, there are some matters that generally also should be avoided.

Do not be overly informal.
" The written Statement of Purpose for many applicants is the way they first introduce themselves to their prospective professors. The Statement should be formal, direct, and appropriately respectful in tone. Undue informality or attempts at irrelevant humour should be avoided.

Do not include irrelevant information.
" Try to keep to the topics that directly relate to your qualifications and desire for admission to the graduate program. Information about hobbies, outside interests, academic pursuits that do not have any real connection to your credentials for success in your chosen field only take up valuable space and divert the Faculty's attention from what is really important in your Statement.

Do not write your life story.
" If the application instructions give a specific -or maximum - length for the Statement of Purpose, do not exceed it. If there is no stated length, remember that Faculty on admissions committees may be reading hundreds of such Statements. Be brief, yet complete. Do not talk about anything in your life before you began your baccalaureate program, unless it's absolutely relevant. A suggested maximum length is four pages, three is even better.

Style & Presentation
" A guide of this kind would be incomplete if it did not mention something about the presentation of the Statement. We live in an era of word processors and personal computers. Unless the directions specifically require that the Statement of Purpose be hand-written - and I doubt that any still say that - it should be typed or printed, double spaced, with absolutely no spelling or grammatical errors. It does not matter if you are applying for a graduate program in English Literature or Physics, Art or Physical Education, you are expected to be literate and to be able to communicate well. A spelling error on your application will make the Faculty evaluating your application view you as careless and not really interested enough in their program to consider you further. Many will stop reading the Statement at that point, regardless of how good your other records are. They will react similarly to errors of grammar, pronoun errors, using plural verbs with singular subjects, and the like. Proof-read your statement many times. Have someone else read your Statement critically. Run it through 'spellcheck' and 'grammarcheck' on your computer.

" ...In sum, the Statement of Purpose is your way to introduce yourself personally to a group of intelligent people . In this document you are asking strangers to allow you to enter their working homes for an extended length of time to learn from them. This presents them with a major decision. In this statement you must present yourself in a favourable light, show who you are, express your interest in them and the subject they teach and tell them why you are special enough to be admitted. It must be honest in conception, accurate in detail, and direct in address. And it must look good and be error-free.

"If you are satisfied that you have given a fair and accurate picture of yourself, as seen in your best light, Faculty will be equally pleased."